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A little more than a month ago, NASA’s Perseverance rover made a daring landing on the Martian surface that’s now been watched (and rewatched) by millions. But now, the real work begins. Tucked deep inside Percy is an instrument designed to inhale Mars' carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere and exhale oxygen. Essentially, it's a mechanical tree—one that could reshape humanity’s future on the Red Planet.

Mars’ atmosphere is roughly 1 percent the density of Earth’s. If we have any dreams of living and working on the Red Planet, we’ll need to generate and store oxygen.

“What breathes the most on a mission to Mars? Not the people,” Michael Hecht, the Associate Director for Research Management at MIT’s Haystack Observatory and the principle investigator of NASA's MOXIE project, tells Popular Mechanics. “It's the rocket that is going to take you home from Mars, that is going to get you off the planet.”

According to NASA’s estimates, a four-person crew will need a lot of propellant—approximately 15,000 pounds of fuel and roughly 55,000 pounds of oxygen—to generate the thrust needed to leave the Martian surface and return home. Lugging all of that oxygen from Earth is a hassle.

That’s where the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, comes in.

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